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Road Trip Itinerary: Go Ham! Taste the Best Jamón Ibérico in Spain | Frommer's Peter Barron

Road Trip Itinerary: Go Ham! Taste the Best Jamón Ibérico in Spain

If you crave classic Mediterranean landscapes—and delicious jamón ibérico (Spain's famous delicacy of special cured ham)—then you're going to love this memorable road trip from Seville.
A translucent slice of ham melts on your tongue and the acorn tang hits the back of your throat. You’re sharing a plate of jamón ibérico de bellota, one of Spain’s great pleasures. 
Spanish free range, acorn-fed jamón ibérico is considered the world’s finest ham, and the best of the best comes from Jabugo in northwest Andalusia. This small agricultural town is well away from the popular tourist trails, but it's easy to reach from one of Spain's most-visited destinations, Seville.
Before you set off, you’ll probably want to spend a day or two seeing the sights in that Andalusian capital—Seville has plenty of opportunities to whet your appetite for the trip ahead.
In Seville, they love a special occasion. Whether that is the April feria, a bullfight, or just a get-together with friends, locals don't need much of an excuse to order a plate or two of jamón ibérico in one of the city’s many bars.
Join them at Las Teresas, where dozens of hams—hooves intact—dangle from the ceiling; or Casa Morales, where the tapas menu is written in chalk on giant terra cotta wine vats; or El Rinconcillo, Seville’s oldest bar, serving ham since 1670.
Then there is Cinco Jotas, or 5J, the byword for ibérico pork excellence. It operates an always-busy restaurant near the bullring, but hold on, you’ll soon be heading to its headquarters in the hills (pictured above).

Day One

Driving in Seville is not recommended. It’s better to pick up a rental car at the airport, a short bus ride from the city center. From there, it’s an easy 90-minute drive to Jabugo, climbing toward the natural park of Sierra de Aracena and the dehesa—the evergreen oak meadows where pedigree pigs roam.
People have been making ham here since Roman times—trimming off the fat, caking it in salt, and hanging it in curing cellars for up to five years. To learn about the age-old process, book your visit to Bodega Cinco Jotas  online in advance. An hour-long tour costs 25 euros and combines history, education about the craftsmanship that goes into every ham, and finally the opportunity to taste it.

Master carver Seve wields a long knife and a pair of tweezers to arrange his perfect slices on a plate. Paired with a glass of rare old sherry from the Osborne group that owns 5J, the flavors and aromas are sensational. And, it is claimed, because jamón ibérico is rich in antioxidants and the beneficial type of cholesterol, it's even good for you.
If you have more time, you can arrange a visit on foot or on horseback to see the pigs in their natural habitat (pictured below). To meet the exacting standards of the black label, they must be 100% pure bred, roam free in at least 2 hectares of land per pig, and eat only grass and acorns during their last 60 days. 

(Credit: Cinco Jotas)
To stay overnight in this privileged setting, book a room or a cottage at Finca Buenvino, where British hosts Sam and Jeannie Chesterton have built a reputation for hospitality over 40 years. They produce ham and sausages from their own ibérico pigs, and Jeannie has written a cookbook of Andalusian recipes, some of which you’ll get to try.

Day Two

After all that, you may feel you have pigged out. For a change of scene, drive 10 km (6 miles) east to the white town of Aracena, where you can wander among elegant Andalusian architecture, climb to the hilltop castle, and explore underground caves.
The Gruta de las Maravillas, or Grotto of Wonders, was discovered in the 19th century beneath the hill on which the castle is built. Its extraordinary rock formations and subterranean lakes make it one of the world’s most renowned cave complexes, providing the setting for films including, it's said, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Hour-long walking tours wind through this floodlit labyrinth every day between 10am and 1.30pm and 3 to 6pm. 
Autumn is the perfect time to visit, when the climate is not too hot and foraged mushrooms are the specialty in Aracena’s many places to eat. But pork is never far away. At Casas, a lovely traditional restaurant near the entrance to the caves, a framed newspaper article proclaims that this is the best place in the world to eat jamón ibérico. When the venerable patron Manolo stops at your table to shave a ribbon of ham onto a plate of fried potato chips, you’ll believe it.


Day Three

If you plan to spend the night in Aracena, its restored 17th-century convent makes an excellent choice. Depending on your appetite, you can indulge in spa and wellness packages, or inevitably, ham packages.
Jamón ibérico is one of those rare delicacies that tastes just as good when you take it home as it does when you sample it in a village bar. And it’s easy to pack. In every town and village around here, you’ll find outlets selling flat, vacuum-packed ham at around €10. (But note the United States does not permit the importation even of vacuum-packed ham.)
So if you arrive back at Seville airport craving one last ham hit, you’re in luck. Another celebrated producer, Enrique Tomáshas the concession at several shops and bars on the concourse. Before your plane takes off, his premium–and expensive–jamón ibérico sandwich will deliver a final burst of flavor that will linger in the memory.

Peter Barron is an author of our popular Frommer's Spain guidebook